I interviewed Gretchen Emick, who is the Women’s Protection and Empowerment Coordinator for the International Rescue Committee (IRC) in Yangon, Myanmar. She’s worked on international programmes related to gender-based violence for over six years, in refugee camps in Kenya, South Sudan, and northern Myanmar, before coming to Yangon over a year ago. Prior to this, she worked as a case manager social worker in the United States for two years. She holds a Master’s of Social Work degree from Boston College, specialising in clinical social work. Gretchen also teaches yoga and is currently receiving her 300-hour teacher training certification.
Katie Gaddini (KG): Tell me about your current role at the IRC.
Gretchen Emick (GE): In my role, my primary responsibility is to bring technical quality assurance and programme oversight to GBV programmes. I also work with donors to raise money and provide training for others in humanitarian response. I help develop the vision of programmes and provide supervision to direct service providers. My work is based on gender-based violence (GBV) survivor-centred care, which sometimes entails ‘psychological first aid’, in the immediate aftermath of a disaster but always focuses on providing case management and psychosocial services for survivors in humanitarian settings.
I have also developed an emotional support group for women generally having trouble coping with stresses. The group has a psycho-educational focus on intimate partner violence, which is the most common form of GBV that we see here in our current responses. I have trained staff to run these groups with women, both survivors of GBV and non-survivors, in the women and girls’ wellness centres where we run services from.
KG: What barriers do you see to your work on ending GBV?
GE: Well here in Myanmar, a major barrier is the stigma. When a rape happens, everyone in the community is talking and guessing about what happened. So seeking help of any kind in the aftermath of a sexual assault can sometimes be seen as a public confirmation that a rape took place.
The situation is especially difficult when rape happens in IDP camps, as women often feel that they cannot go to the police. The perpetrator lives in the camp, so there are fears of retribution. We have had cases where perpetrators tried intimidating survivors, camp management committees and our staff. Some of these perpetrators have become threatening and violent and there is very little recourse when they live in the same camps and exert powerful control and fear over many in the camps.
KG: That sounds terrifying. I’m remembering how the gap between ‘best practices’ that you learn in social work training and the reality of the circumstances women live in is I struggled with when I worked on GBV prevention in South Africa. How do you manage this in your setting in Myanmar?
GE: I focus on ensuring that staff know how to do safety planning with survivors and try to employ a solution-focused approach. For example, asking clients what are the triggers for IPV in their home? (Is it when he’s drunk or when he was unable to earn any money that day?) Are there neighbours that are supportive? Can you go to them? Providing emotional support and case management in follow-up visits is crucial. When possible, we refer women out to a safe house or to ethnic service providers who run group homes. This is only possible in some settings in Myanmar though. There are separate cultural issues in separate parts of Myanmar, so populations are affected differently. The specificity of location matters here, as different communities and ethnic groups, will respond to GBV differently.
KG: And that brings me to another question that I have, which is around language and how ‘rape’ is defined in a specific location.
GE: Women often talk around GBV in indirect terms. Especially working with adolescent girls in a focus group setting, you cannot ask ‘is rape happening in this community?’ but you can describe a scenario that doesn’t use that language and see what they say. There is a reluctance to address things and culturally in Myanmar, directness is not the way to go. When I worked in South Sudan, we also used case scenarios to describe a GBV event, without using the words rape or assault. The fact that this approach is more successful correlates to barriers around language. In Thailand, social workers in the IRC programme spent 2 years trying to decide on the translation of the wording & definition of GBV for use in Burmese. ‘Gender’ does not exist in Burmese, it translates as “sex”.
KG: That is so interesting. Can you give an example of how this plays out?
GE: We might provide illustrative scenarios on rape and ask hypothetically if they would seek help in such a situation, what are the barriers to seeking help, and how might the community react in that situation? I think it’s important to encourage women and girls to come together whether or not they are survivors, for example creating women and girls centres as a space for women, a space where they can go, and an opportunity for engagement. These spaces can often happen via psychosocial groups and life skills groups, like the ones we run. The IRC creates women and girls’ centres, or rents out existing space in the community and cordons it off as a safe space for an allotted period of time. For example, in Myanmar, tea-houses are male-only spaces, so we try to counter that with a female-only space. I did this in South Sudan as well and it worked well so that if a woman goes there and wants to report rape it’s seen as normal to go there and not loaded with stigma or association.
KG: That is such a brilliant programme. I know we’ve talked about the perceived divide between programme-focused GBV work, and research-focused GBV approaches. I think this antagonism can occur from both researchers and practitioners, having myself been both! So as a practitioner what do you think are important areas that need to be researched?
GE: The IRC is doing research trying to measure indicators around adaptive functioning using indicators such as reduced stigma, increased feelings of safety, and increased networks of support. We are trying to measure increased resiliency. I personally want to get away from reporting numbers of cases, because we are never going to truly know actual levels of violence, and research needs to focus on interventions that do show women reporting the meaningful impact of services they have used.
I’d like to see more research on the use of somatic interventions, and body movement as an intervention for trauma. I’ve seen yoga being used in a few camps in Lebanon and Jordan, not necessarily for rape survivors but for trauma more generally. I want to know more about how do survivors engage with experiential activities around experience and embody different emotions?
With the groups I am currently working within Myanmar, they are from a culture that isn’t used to speaking openly with outsiders, especially in the recent 60 years when you didn’t know who was informing on whom and there was a lot of secrecy.
KG: I would also like to see more qualitative research done on yoga as a healing modality for sexual-violence survivors, as I’ve seen it borne out so clearly with women I know personally. My last question, I suppose, is: How do you keep going? Having seen what you’ve seen, and worked in some devastated places in the world, what inspires you to keep doing this work?
GE: Sometimes that’s a really hard question to answer! But ultimately, I’m always inspired by the staff and team that do such amazing work in the camps day in and day out. They are so dedicated and full of energy and determined to help survivors as much as they can in these really difficult environments. I am in awe of them. And when I get to see women and girls and speak with them about our programming and the impact it’s had on their lives, I know that this work, no matter how hard, is worth it. Women and girls face such risk in these settings and they deserve every opportunity and service to recover and thrive when they do experience violence. Helping to provide that opportunity keeps me motivated and keeps me engaged in this work.